By Ambica Gulati
The once-in-a-144-years mega event, the Maha Kumbha Mela, is here. We dig out some legends associated with the Kumbha Mela and its esoteric meaning
The Mahakumbha. This is your chance to attain moksha. It’s now or never, because only once in 144 years do you get to see this unique combination of the spiritual energies. The much awaited and hyped Mahakumbha mela will be held at the holy land of Allahabad, India, through January till Mahashivratri in February. According to astrologers, the kumbha mela takes place when the planet Jupiter enters the sign of Aquarius and the Sun enters into Aries.
ritual bath at Sangam, where the three rivers—Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati—meet, at a predetermined time and place is the major part of this mela. Other activities include religious discussions, yajnas or sacrificial fire ceremony, devotional singing, mass feeding of holy men and women and the poor, and religious assemblies where doctrines are debated.
The kumbha mela is periodically celebrated every 12 years at one of the four holy places of Hardwar, Nasik, Ujjain and Allahabad. But a culmination of 12 times 12 will be in this year and as it coincides with a step into the new millennium, it is expected to increase spiritual vibrations globally. In 1989, over 15 million people attended the kumbha mela at Allahabad and the Guinness Book of World Records noted it as the greatest number of people assembling for a common purpose.
Many foreign visitors aim to make it to the mela including New Agers Richard Bach, Billy Graham and Paulo Coelho. Writes Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, spiritual head of the Himalayan Institute in their website: "Many visitors will be traveling from the United States; others will be joining from 20 other countries." For this special occasion, many saints and sages, totally engrossed in their sadhana in the Himalayas will emerge for a bath at Sangam.
The political parties also have an ace up their sleeves. The Week reports that the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) plans to unveil a model of the Ram Temple, to be built at Ayodhya, which is nearly complete, at a secret location in Jaipur. Designed by Gujarat-based architect Chandrakant Sompura, it is crafted by Chandresh Pandey from Jaipur. Kumbhaliterally means a pitcher. Astrological representation of Aquarius denotes a man holding a pitcher. The reference is to the pot filled with the nectar of immortality that emerged after the gods and demons churned the milky ocean. However, the symbolism inherent when we speak of kumbha far transcends the literal translation.
Our scriptures tell us that the trinity of gods—Brahma (creator), Vishnu (whose name literally means the divine light that pervades everything, protector) and Shiva (destroyer), and all goddesses, including Mother Earth with her seven islands, and all knowledge in the form of the four Vedas—Rig, Yajur, Sama, Atharva—are present in the kumbha. So kumbha is symbolic of all that is and all that exists. In essence, the kumbha mela is a celebration of all knowledge and all life.
Though kumbha refers to an overflowing pot, it also refers to a body filled with knowledge. The nectar, or divine knowledge, lies within this kumbha, which is nothing but our body and we simply have to churn it to bring this knowledge out.
If we look into the origins of the kumbha mela, we find that this pitcher symbolises sharing and not hoarding. In Vishnu Purana a beautiful story is told of the war between the rakshasas (demons) and the devatas (gods). According to this, the demons were always fighting with their peace-loving brothers, the devatas. One day, the gods went to Brahma and asked for help: "If we continuously lose our brothers and sisters in the never-ending war with the demons, we will all perish." Brahma advised them to ask Vishnu for help. Vishnu responded: "If you churn the great milky ocean, you will find a golden pot of nectar. And a drop of nectar will make you immortal. Since you are not strong enough to churn the ocean yourselves, you must take the demons’ help." Now, the gods were more distressed. They voiced their fear: "If the demons know that the reward is immortality, they will forcibly take the nectar and create more trouble. And if we don’t tell them the reason, they will not agree to the churning." But Vishnu assuaged them and the perplexed gods convinced the demons to help them.
It was no mean task to churn the vast milky ocean. Serpent Vasuki, Vishnu’s seat, offered to be the rope and Vishnu incarnated as a turtle on whose back rested the mountain Meru. And so began the fantastic churning.
After much hard work, a vicious smoke emerged, which filled the skies. This was not nectar, but deadly poison! With people choking to death, this poison could not be ignored. Who would save them? Then the lord of the netherworld, Shiva, came forward and drank the poison. Today, after this sacrifice, Shiva is worshipped as the savior from death.
The churning resumed and shortly came out the golden pot of nectar. As soon as the pot came out, Indra, the lord of heavens, signaled Dhanwantari, the primordial physician, who leapt forward, grabbed the pot of nectar and ran away. The demons, quicker than him, pursued him relentlessly. Indra sought aid from Jupiter (the dev guru), Surya (the sun), Moon and Saturn to protect Dhanwantari and preserve the kumbha. This long chase lasted 12 days, which was the equivalent of 12 years on earth. During this chase, which traversed all realms of the universe, Dhanwantari rested only four times, placing the kumbha on the ground. And each time a few drops of the holy nectar spilled onto the earth in that place. These four places—Nasik, Ujjain, Hardwar and Allahabad in India—are today the centers of the kumbha mela.
In another legend, a demon named Shankhasura (shankha: conch, asura: demon) sent forth legions of creatures from the bottom of the sea to capture the sacred Vedas. And as the dark waters swallowed the knowledge of the mantras in the Vedas, the higher values of life also sank into the depths. Slowly, acts of charity and other forms of selfless service vanished. Fear, hunger, sleep and sex became the motivating forces for all human activities. Striving to appease their insatiable desires, humans plundered all. Scared, the gods sought refuge in the caves of Mount Kailash. Now, the conch demon demolished natural law and ushered in his reign with calamities—earthquakes, volcanoes, droughts.
Chaos stalked the earth, and with the gods in hiding, the sages intervened. They meditated on Vishnu, the protector and nourisher, asking him for aid. In response to their plight, Vishnu advised them: "With a singular aim and disciplined mind, join forces to gather the knowledge of the Vedas once again. While you fulfill this task I will bring the benevolent forces of nature from their hiding place and dwell with them at Prayaga Raja (now Allahabad, India)."
After the sages’ departure, Vishnu assumed the form of an enormous fish, and vanquished Shankhasura. He then summoned the gods from their hiding place and brought them to Prayaga Raja, where they were joined by the other two of the trinity, Brahma and Shiva.
Meanwhile the sages, through dhyana, discovered where the Vedas were hidden, fished them out of the mud, and joined the assembly at Prayaga Raja. There they asked Vishnu’s permission to bring the knowledge of the Vedas into practice for the benefit of all creation. Granting their request, Vishnu said: "The secret of success lies in sacrifice, and the Vedas tell us how to walk this path. In every aspect of creation there is a continuous ceremony of sacrifice. Leaves decompose and nourish other organisms. Nothing in creation is meant for itself. The greatest among all sacrifices is the ashwamedha (the horse sacrifice) performed for the larger welfare. They train and tame their "horses", the mind and senses, and finally they share this harnessed energy with all living beings. This form of sacrifice nourishes humankind and every other form of life." So all present performed the ashwamedha yajna.
The ritual lasted 12 years, and when it was completed the ecosystem was back into balance. Even the creatures from the netherworld were transformed. And with the natural world once again bursting with vitality, peace and prosperity reigned. The sages and gods requested Vishnu to bless the sacred Prayaga Raja: "May the energy emitting from Prayaga Raja guide humanity through all eternity." Hence, today this place is known as brahma kshetra (the field of pure consciousness) and tirtha raja (the lord of all holy places).
According to the Padma Purana these events took place when the Himalayas were still in their infancy and the area around Badrinath, now well above the timberline, was covered by a lush forest. From that time on Prayaga Raja has been regarded as a spiritual center. Great sages—Markandeya, Chyavana, Pulastya, Bharadvaja—guided their students through prolonged, intense practices here. Noble kings—Pururava and Bharata—whose dedication to spiritual practices and acts of charity earned them the status of raja rishi (royal seers), instituted a series of group practices here that went on, uninterrupted, for decades.
These stories remind us that a materially successful society eventually ends up with a Shankhasura, a demon who systematically drowns the higher values of life. "Whether myth or fiction, for centuries these legends have inspired people to find the sacred in the mundane," writes Tigunait. "Most religions teach us that the spiritual and the worldly cannot coexist. What solace! These stories imply that there is no mediator between the aspirant and God, no rigid rules or laws. Simply listen to the voice of your heart, they say, and surrender the fruits of your deeds to the Almighty, who dwells in this sacred land."
In this one national event the nectar of love, satsang, knowledge and grace is distributed to all without any discrimination. Even Mahatma Gandhi, in his autobiography, wrote: "…and then the kumbha mela arrived. It was a great moment for me. I have never tried to seek holiness or divinity as a pilgrim, but 1.7 million people cannot be hypocrites."
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